The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Part 2: You Can’t Move Forward When You’re Looking Through The Rear View Mirror …

NOTE: As you know, I tend to pre-write my posts quite a bit in advance. I say this because when I wrote this, I was told the article I am basing my perspective on, would have come out. It hasn’t.

With that in mind, I’ve had to make a few changes to how this post was originally written by removing the name of the person I am responding to because I do not believe it is fair to quote them when their words have not yet gone into the public domain. Sorry.
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So yesterday I talked about how a global CCO of a global network agency and I were asked to write about how the advertising industry can attract creative talent.

You can read their perspective here.

Anyway, after they wrote his response, I was asked for mine.

I must admit, I found it hard because ‘response’ means you should directly respond to the point of view of the person before you and I felt that was unfair because regardless what I think they are doing – or his agency as a whole – I have to say it’s good they’re doing something.

However – and, as usual, it’s a big however – I do think they are putting a plaster on the issue rather than dealing with the issue directly.

This is not meant as a criticism of their work or their actions, but more a counter way of how we should be looking at dealing with the situation if we are serious about maintaining our relevance in both attracting creative talent and offering something clients can’t get elsewhere.

Anyway, this is what my response was …


Before I begin, I should point out there are still agencies and individuals who act as an inspiration for young creative talent to join our industry … however, it has been widely acknowledged that this is becoming harder to do, so this is my response to that challenge.

Advertising is the only industry that gives people business cards that labels the holder as ‘creative’. Musicians don’t call themselves that. Neither do authors. Or games designers. Why does adland feel it is necessary to say what someone is, rather than show what they do? Hell, why does adland think creativity only lives in those who work – or want to work – in the field of art and copy?

Of course there are many reasons for this – from remuneration to routine – however I also believe it’s because we’ve been slowly moving away from creativity to focusing on execution.

In other words, from thinking broadly to thinking narrow.

If people don’t fit into our tight definition of ‘what creativity is’, then we tend to view them as misfits … obstacles… people who block creative potential rather than have the skills to maybe bring original ways to solving clients problems.

Of course it’s not entirely adlands fault, clients have also contributed to this situation by placing ‘KPI’s’ on agencies that basically pushes them to hire people who will deliver exactly what they want, but the fact is that while I praise the CCO for what he is doing at his network – and acknowledge everything has to start somewhere – agency ‘programs’ will not fundamentally change the business until we do 2 things.

1. Change how we structure our remuneration because without that, the status quo will always beat committing to the new and different.

2. Change our attitude towards what ‘creativity’ actually is.

Is it any wonder young creative talent are questioning a career in advertising when the work they see us put out to the world hasn’t really evolved over the past 50 years?

That doesn’t mean the work we are doing is wrong – nor does it mean there has not been immense creativity, craft and purpose that has gone into it – but given so much of it doesn’t reflect the world young creative talent live and operate in, it’s hardly a surprise they aren’t inspired by it, compared to industries, like tech, fashion, music or a billion start-ups. [Who are perceived, probably rightly, to offer better money, potential, hours and glamour]

The fact is, creativity is not this narrow space we have pulled ourselves into and the fact we hold on to it so doggedly – both because a lot of clients ask for it and because it gives us a sense of control and security – is contributing to young creative talent turning their backs on a career in advertising.

So how do we change it?

Well, it’s easier said than done and – as I said – I applaud the CCO for what they are doing, but we need to change how we do what we do and how we charge for it.

In other words, blow the whole fucking thing up.

Sure, the industry can continue to make money doing what it’s doing, but whether it will be able to claim it is ‘creative’ is another thing altogether … and then we’ll be in an even worse situation.

I hate to say it, but we talk big but the reality is we often think quite small.

Worse, when we talk big, it’s often in terms of ‘ad’ ideas rather than ideas.

I still passionately believe ‘Square’ should have come from an agency. Or a bank.

Let’s face it, the situation it was addressing – small business finds cash flow difficult – was hardly some astounding revelation. But we didn’t, because it’s easier – and cheaper – to say we care rather than develop stuff that shows it … and then use communication to amplify our solution to the masses.

[I also acknowledge it could be because clients often don’t give us the chance to explore these possibilities, so it ends up being a chicken and egg situation]

For me, a great start for change would be if we got back to embracing broad, rather than narrow.

Open ourselves up to new thinking … change how we work … question our processes and systems … give people the time, support and encouragement to try stuff. Really try stuff. Not send them to some 2-day workshop but push them to push themselves. Help them invest in their own development and let them know they have a place where they are allowed to really try stuff. And fail.

I would personally stop our obsession with award entries and allocate some of that time – and resources – to developing mini businesses. Or new [commercially minded] products. Or anything that shows the best of our creative thinking, rather than the laziest.

Stuff that could generate awareness and prestige because they’re not focused just on the bubble of advertising, but culture.

I’ve always said that our biggest problem is thinking other agencies are our competitor.

They’re not.

We might not like to admit it, but Google, HBO and Facebook [to name a few] have impacted and influenced culture far more than we have.

We’ve absolutely helped with their success, but they’ve been the instigators of it … but it doesn’t have to be that way. Hell, it wasn’t always that way.

“But Rob …”, I hear you say, “… we’ve lost our seat at the boardroom table”.

Yes … but that’s not just because of clients, it’s also because of us.

The fact is we’ve often been more interested in talking about what we’re interested in doing, rather than what the client is interested in achieving – and while we’ve all started talking more openly about the need to impact business – this has seemingly resulted in some agencies behaving in a way that’s made them indistinguishable from the clients they represent.

Some think this is a good idea – that it helps clients take us seriously – but for me, I’ve always found the best clients like ‘intelligent outsiders’, because we offer them something they don’t already know, something they don’t already have, something that can fundamentally help their business in ways they never imagined.

As the CCO said, things won’t change overnight and I am certainly not suggesting the industry should blindly try and attract ‘young creatives’ to like us – there’s a lot of stuff we’re great at that people will find important and valuable to know and learn – however I feel if we change our attitude and process towards what creativity is, it will start to point our industry us in a new direction … a place where the sun hasn’t already set … a place that young creative talent [in the broad sense of the word] will want to explore and learn from.

A place that is infectious again.

Then it’s up to us.

Just like changing the remuneration system.


I know … I know … but I told you yesterday these were going to be long posts.

Now I am in no way suggesting I have all the answers and I know the CCO isn’t either.

I also know there’s issues, as I touched on, like pay and working conditions that are also having a negative influence on attracting talent.

But what do you think?

What could work? What are we doing wrong?

Do you feel their view is more on the money or mine. Or neither of us.

Is anyone getting it right?

I don’t just mean attracting young talent, but actually doing something interesting and commercially valuable with them?

I’d love to hear your point of view, especially if you’re young and in advertising or young and anti-advertising, though I accept you probably haven’t even got to this point of the post because you fell asleep ages ago.


51 Comments so far
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Good response Robert. The lack of evolution over the past 50 years is an interesting point. Many will disagree with that but I’m inclined to agree. Does the CCO now get to respond to your response?

Comment by George

I’m sure the CCO who was meant to be anonymous but who Rob managed to name four or five times (along with the name of the agency) has a response in mind.

Comment by John

Whenever Rob looks like he’s being considerate to others, that’s when he generally isn’t.

Comment by Bazza

campbells mafia roots shining fucking through.

Comment by andy@cynic

200 junior fucktards are writing his response now.

Comment by andy@cynic

That’s OK, 10 of my brilliant colleague are writing mine.

Comment by Rob

Millennials don’t read long copy. You both lose.

Comment by Billy Whizz

no one reads this blog. no one fucking cares.

Comment by andy@cynic

I like the idea of moving resources away from award-chasing and towards business-oriented side-projects. You could also spend some of the time getting everyone to understand numbers and finance rather than a bit of html and css which really doesn’t add up to much in the long run.

Comment by John

numbers and finance would be fucked. unless you mean the fucking managing directors of the agencies.

Comment by andy@cynic

I don’t know if that would work. I do think understanding some basic principals of business would, but the moment they get in the weeds, the moment they are restricted in their approach rather than liberated. Or am I missing something?

Comment by Rob

So, if your planners get into the weeds, they’re allowed to quit and return to ignorance?

Comment by John

The biggest difference between the 2 responses is the CCO thinks doing ads will fix the issue where you think dealing creatively with the issue will fix the issue. You win.

Comment by Bazza

It wasn’t really a fair fight. You don’t get to be global CCO without drinking the “ads fix everything” kool aid. For a CCO, their response was fairly pragmatic. Wouldn’t change a thing but at least he acknowledged there is a problem which is pretty rare.

Comment by Bazza

what the fuck does a global cco actually fucking do? im fucked knowing what a local bastard does let alone a global one.

Comment by andy@cynic

Excellent response, John’s pointing out, agreeing with your point that the resources should shift to more creative, business-oriented, side projects and away from awards is absolutely right.

Comment by Ciaran McCabe

The most creative thing they’re doing is putting their hours against a clients job number.

Comment by DH

Photo library snap.

Comment by Bazza

thats how clients really choose their fucking agencies.

Comment by andy@cynic

ps: we can see name + network in this post

Comment by Ste

It will come out soon when the articles are published. It should have already, but there was a delay – hence my attempt to be professional. For once.

Comment by Rob

Thoughtful, smart, realistic. I would expect nothing less.

Comment by Lee Hill

Interesting that you’re writing in response to a JWT perspective.

Back in the late 60s, one of their clients in the UK was Rank Hovis, McDougall, who sold flour – as bread, obviously from the middle name – but also for baking.

RHM were concerned that home baking seemed to be in decline and approached the agency wondering how they might be able to sell more flour, or sell it at a higher margin. That was the brief. Not a request for more or better advertising, but for a broader solution to a genuine business problem.

JWT’s response was to create a totally new brand which offered packaged individual pies and tarts. They called it ‘Mr Kipling’, and JWT created everything from the recipes, range of products to packaging, POS material, pricing, and eventually of course, the advertising.

Stephen King, the father of planning at JWT, was a key player in all this, to the extent of messing about with his own recipes in the test kitchen at JWT and serving them up to the client.

It’s a classic story, but I’m left to wonder how they got paid for what they did for that client. (Perhaps Jeremy Bullmore can remember). Simply getting 15% of the eventual media spend seems rather underdone. Even a head hours based fee for ‘brand development’ could not possibly reflect the ultimate value to client of the brand they created.

That’s why you’re right, of course. Remuneration is the core problem. A way of getting paid for value rather than process.

Perhaps a licensing or royalty system for ideas, brands and products, based on a percentage of turnover? The first step would be for the agency to retain copyright in its work rather than handing it over to the client for free.

Comment by Ian Gee

Oh bugger, the name of the agency and individual was supposed to have been scrubbed.

Funny you talk about royalty schemes … that is what we did at Cynic and frankly, it is what kept us afloat in the early years. It was hard to get through initially because we needed a very clear – and legally binding – definition of what success factors would incur the royalty to be paid, but we got there.

[I have to acknowledge Lee Hill here, because not only was he the first client to sign off on it, he also helped us on the legal development to ensure we would be protected in the case of any potential dispute]

What I found interesting was the clients who did it saw it as ‘confidence and commitment to their cause’ whereas the ones who didn’t hire us because of it, saw it as a risk of having to pay out even more, despite the fact our day-to-day figures were much lower than their traditional agencies.

At the end of the day, it seemed that for some companies, consistency – even if the results are disappointing – was more valuable than pushing the possibilities [and the implications of that] for greater success.

Comment by Rob

Again, you’re right. There are a lot of clients who want a steady, small increase in sales because they simply wouldn’t be able to handle a runaway success. Last year plus five percent is just fine, thanks.

John Turnbull (late, much lamented CD of Saatchi & Saatchi Melbourne) once said: “If they were being honest, the objective in the brief would say ‘create mild interest’.”

Comment by Ian Gee

I very much enjoyed reading this. To be fair, I very much enjoyed reading what the CCO had to say. I think you both make strong and valid points and I think the fact his/her agency has acknowledged that there is a problem and are taking steps to address and fix it should be welcomed and commended. The DNA of yesterday’s text is very much the stuff of a global advertising network and will no doubt receive applause from those kind of industry people. The DNA of your text is that of Nottingham, Cynic, W+K and an opinionated old sod and as everybody here, even Andy, adore you, we spend a great deal of time here (I still do, even if I comment less than before) so it goes without question that we’re drawn more to what you’ve written. But it’s also because it’s closer to what the problem is and what needs to be done about it.

I should point out before I go on, that I’ve had the pleasure to work with some fine young people of the last couple of years and I think that should be acknowledged more in the discussion. There is a tendency to make out that anyone under 32 is shit. That’s not true. Some people under 32 are shit. A hell of a lot of people over 32 are phenomenally shit too. So to your text.

You had me at KPIs.

A KPI, much like a fork, isn’t an evil thing, per se but in the hands of a lunatic you can poke somebody’s eye out with one. They’re not the root of all evil but their migration from the procurement director’s office into the marketing director’s office has obviously troubled this industry: the only industry that calls itself “the creative industry”. We’ve talked about this a lot over the last ten years. The appearance of the KPI has led to something which has, in my opinion, damaged the potential of future talent and the attractiveness and relevance of an industry that I fought so long and hard to get back into: Advertising Education.

I’m presuming that my journey into advertising is pretty similar to most people of my age (sorry for being anecdotal): art degree, art shows, work spotted by an agency and asked to join, two years at the agency, set up my own agency, etc etc. I was brought into the advertising world (Ammirati Puris Lintas in Frankfurt were to blame) because I solved a particular need: I filled a creative hole (digital). I didn’t know anything about advertising or marketing (and only after paying close attention to Dodds have I slowly understood the difference), but I had a head full of ideas, pictures and stories I wanted to tell. I liked adverts, the pay was good and I got to make nice things on the internet, so I said yes.

The thing is that (and this may only be the case in Germany), universities and private media schools are teaching young people looking to get into the industry how to be advertising people and how to hit KPIs. The agencies, bogged down in the lunacy of the remuneration model you so rightly challenge, go to market looking for young people who fill a need: filling a KPI hole, cheaply. The quality of work suffers and the quality of life suffers. Given the choice of having a MBA to make a banner advert and have to work 16 hours a day for shit money or having a MBA, earning shit loads of money and changing the future of the world at Facebook, it’s hardly surprising that they’d probably want to hit the KPIs at Facebook.

I could go on. But this comment is probably too long.

Love to you all.

Comment by Marcus

Exactly what Marcus said – especially the final paragraph. It’s a ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ mentality, which explains the lack of thinking in most social media/content agencies.

I slightly despair at the rise of ‘creative strategists’ who haven’t been trained in anything business-led, work as researchers at social media/content agencies, and are pretty far from being commercially minded planners.

NB, I think the biggest issue is unquestionably renumeration. Anomaly tried it in the UK, but have now, arguably, become an ad agency. They couldn’t make it work here – too many clients weren’t prepared to walk down the IP route.

Marcus, I’m worried that I now no longer make the under 32 criteria, mind you. I am still a millennial, damnit. 🙂

Comment by leftywill84

You’re also married, too.

Comment by Marcus

Love what you’ve said Marcus and I definitely agree with you that a lot of people – very wrongly – think if you’re under 32 you must be shit.

I am hoping that I have not in any way conveyed that point of view because [1] it’s absolutely not what I subscribe to and [2] the point of my post is supposed to be the total opposite.

Comment by Rob

You’ve not conveyed that at all, Robert. It just seems to pop up around this subject – more of a general comment that aimed at what you’ve written. Apologies for any confusion, etc.

Comment by Marcus

Why are you being so polite?
That freaks me out more.

Comment by Rob

Mission accomplished.

Comment by Marcus

As a young ‘creative’, I completely agree. From my experience in advertising (I suppose it could be the brands I’ve worked with so far), clients rarely involve the agency when it comes to its product. Often, the agency has lots of ideas on how to improve their product but there’s so much bureaucracy we just get excuses like, ‘it’s already built’ or ‘there is no time’. All the agency is then tasked to do is to ‘communicate’ how amazing that product is. Even when oftentimes it’s not. And no matter how you try to spin it, you can’t. In fact, the more you try, the more silly you sound. I guess that’s why ‘creatives’ are moving to tech companies where they can contribute to the product, rather than just the communication. Style AND substance.

Another reason for young ‘creatives’ leaving the industry – the cut throat, ultra competitive agency environment where everyone guards their ideas like their lives depend on them. And in a way their careers do. This competitiveness is fuelled by the whole awards malarky and the fact that in many agencies only ‘creatives’ with awards get promoted and pay raises. This lack of collaboration is extremely toxic. Tech companies and design firms like IDEO take on a more collaborative, ‘open-source’ philosophy… and end up doing the most ‘creative’ work. Because creativity benefits from more heads (and hearts) coming together. And a friendly, open work environment allows people to share ideas without fear that sharing their ideas will lead to someone else stealing them and jeopardising their careers.

Also, many traditional big agencies pigeonhole creatives as ‘copywriter’ or ‘art director’. Copywriters aren’t allowed to have Photoshop, Illustrator or Premier Pro on their laptops. This is incredibly frustrating and stifling as many young ‘creatives’ have grown up with the computer and the internet, and often have a myriad of skills that they want to use to express their ideas. With start ups and tech companies, their job roles are more fluid and they get to learn and use a broader spectrum of skills.

Of course, this is not true of all agencies and there are quite a few out there which are still creating amazing work that inspires us young ‘creatives’!

Comment by Chew

Thanks Chew for your comments. The only thing I would add is that agencies can only credibly contribute to product development if they understand the clients business and tragically, few do – or want to – which means the ideas they suggest often come across as self serving rather than value building.

That said, there are many who do appreciate this [and have clients who value it] and that is when something great has the potential to truly happen. I’ve been fortunate to experience this more than once. But not nearly as much as I would have liked to or that I’ve tried to.

As an aside, is the “copywriter can’t have photoshop” a real thing? That literally blows me away.

Comment by Rob

To be fair, most copywriters need Spellcheck a lot more than they need Photoshop.

Comment by Ian Gee

A lot of them don’t seem to have that either.

Comment by Rob

Yup, I asked my Photoshop and Final Cut or Premiere Pro on my first day and they told me, ‘Sorry those are only for art directors.’ Maybe they didn’t want to pay for more licenses.

Comment by rchewgum

Oops I meant ‘asked for’.

Comment by rchewgum

Ultimately most of you are in too deep, it’s not things like pay or hours. I would have been happy with shit pay and working on weekends if it really meant I would be able to work on stuff that matters.

As a recent graduate my advances into advertising were nothing short of disappointing and the assumption that you definitely are shit if you’re younger than whoever you report to, played a big part in that. If you are working on a brief that says please repeat the non-creative idea that our recent competitor came up with although the reason people were buying the service was for completely different reasons, with people in the agency (at least seemingly) not caring in the slightest – why the fuck would I buy into that? Unfortunately this isn’t just my experience and that’s why I now work for a tech start-up where I oversee the market entry of all 3 software products across EMEA, aged 24.

Comment by Liz

You raise good points about the things the advertising industry does to alienate individuals (though you also seem to have worked at a terrible example of an advertising agency) but when you say “stuff that matters”, it seems you mean stuff that matters to you which seems to mean stuff where you are in control. But I might have misunderstood that.

Comment by Pete

Well I wouldn’t discredit the agency as such, just the people I met in their planning dep. seem to work there to fuel their inflated egos. Unfortunately around a dozen people had similar experiences and less than half are still working in advertising.

Well my idea of “stuff that matters” is actually solving the clients problems, with the customers problems in mind. I’d be equally happy to work on dishwasher tabs or Nike. In terms of control, if you have a great team and manager this isn’t an issue as those people will believe in you and not treat you like you don’t add any value.

Comment by Liz

Sounds exactly like a bad agency experience to me.

Comment by Bazza

That Photoshop story is a nice indicator. Reading all this it seems that the advertising industry is still super siloed and hierarchical. And that is something the other industries and todays start-ups have been able to keep away from or got rid of. More integrated, more multi-disciplinary, more multi cultural, less age bias, etcetera. No wonder talent goes somewhere else. Well you know what to do now (says someone from the older generation).

Comment by Smithie

It’s out Robert. No need to hide names anymore. I still think your response is the one that best deals with the issue rather than tries to bandaid it.

Comment by George

Reading some of the responses makes me think Liz (above) might have for some of them. Rob. Hate to say it, but I still like your ideas. Did you pick on JWT for fun or didn’t you know others were also responding?

Comment by Bazza

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